Hi my name is Laura Decker and I’m an educator at the UMFA. This object is called a body mask, or sometimes just a mask, and is from the Asmat region of Papua New Guinea. What do you think of when you think of a mask? Have you ever worn a mask? What kind of mask was it? Why do people wear masks?
Now think of this object as a body mask. A body mask is worn to cover the entire body and allows the wearer to completely assume a new identity. Asmat people believe that these body masks hold the spirit of someone who has recently died. It is the responsibility of another member of their community, the person who wears the mask, to help the spirit move on to the afterlife.
Do you ever wear anything that makes you remember someone in your family or community? How does it make you feel to wear it?
Asmat body masks are only meant to be worn once and then left in the bush or forest outside the community center. Overtime they decompose, symbolizing the spirit’s release.
One function of a museum is to preserve and take care of artwork like this body mask. However, since it is here in the museum, this mask was not left to decompose after use. How does this affect the spirit inside the mask? This is a constant conflict in museums, especially with ephemeral, or short-lived, spiritual objects like this one.